By Meghan Rabbitt
“Tell me about your greatest weakness.” It’s an interview bomb that’s capable of throwing off even the most prepared candidates — and 90% of the time, it does.
At least, that’s according to Melissa Llarena, a career coach who’s spent the past 10 years helping professionals successfully navigate job transitions, craft compelling résumés — and expertly handle the “weakness” ask with grace.
Curious to know her secrets? We were, too.
So, we sat down with Llarena to learn more about what hiring managers are trying to glean by tossing out this question — and how to answer truthfully without revealing a deal-breaking flaw.
LearnVest: Why do you think the “weakness” question presents such a problem for job candidates?
Llarena: ”When you’re in an interview setting, you’re being judged. And, there’s no greater indication of that than when someone asks, for lack of a better phrase, ‘Ultimately, why shouldn’t you get this job?’ That’s really what the weakness question is trying to tease out: What about you might not be the best fit, or why you might be a riskier hire than the next person. It is very much a way to filter the pool, and candidates don’t want to say the wrong thing and get ruled out.”
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Do hiring managers always ask the question head-on, or are there sneakier ways of sussing out a job-seeker’s flaws?
“Some interviewees have become pretty savvy when it comes to skirting this question, so HR has had to figure out new ways of uncovering what they want to know — which is exactly how successful a given hire would be. That, of course, starts with a better understanding of the costs they would incur if they hired that person. For example, questions like, ‘What would your current manager say are your biggest areas of improvement?’ and ‘What would you like to learn in this role?’ could be the hiring manager’s attempt to identify shortcomings.”
So, what might a good answer sound like?
“A lot of times clients tell me they use generic answers like ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ or ‘I’m just a type-A person.’ But the problem with these responses is that they don’t sound very authentic. It’s basically saying you’re the perfect human — and there’s no such thing.
"The best answer is to name a weakness that only applies to very specific situations. For example, you might say, ‘My impatience crops up when teammates don’t deliver on their promises, as it relates to mission-critical assignments with tight deadlines.’ Then the key is to finish that thought by suggesting you’ve identified ways to do better in those moments in the future.”
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Let’s say you have an obvious skills gap. Is it reasonable to offer this up as your weakness?
“If it’s something that’s blatantly obvious from reading your résumé — for example, you don’t have a certain certification — then that’s a completely fair weakness to bring up, because it is likely already top of mind for the interviewers.
"That said, make sure to pair the answer with something that is very useful and compelling in terms of your candidacy, such as what you’ve done, to date, that’s similar to achieving the certification. Maybe you’ve already led projects with people who have the certification in question. Basically, you need to explain what you’ve done in order to prepare yourself for the job — and why, despite your weakness, you’re still a good hire, not a risky one.”
Is there one thing you should never say?
“Aside from offering up a personality flaw that you can’t get over, the worst thing you could say is nothing — either by saying you don’t know, or that you don’t have a weakness. Both scenarios are bad.
It’s immature to say you don’t have an area of your career that you could improve upon — every person has something. Suggesting otherwise just shows a lack of preparation.”
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